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Bishops elect new leaders, plan for renewed church (UM News)

November 14, 2023

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has elected East Ohio Conference Bishop Tracy S. Malone as its next president.

Malone, who will take the president’s gavel next spring, will be the first Black woman to lead the more than 110 active and retired United Methodist bishops in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.

Her election comes as she celebrates the 30th anniversary of her ordination.

“This is a sacred trust, and I will hold it with care and great responsibility,” Malone told her fellow bishops upon the announcement of her election. “And as I prepare to assume my role as president, I am deeply committed to doing the prayerful work of deep listening.”

She said she would seek to attend “to the voice, to the wisdom and to the guidance of God” and “to the needs, the fears, the hopes and the dreams of the people called United Methodist” as well as “to the cries and to the needs of the world.”

The council’s active bishops elected Malone and their other officers by ballot Nov. 10 during the fall meeting at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. The denomination’s episcopal leaders used the Nov. 6-11 gathering to focus not only on choosing new leaders but also seeking God’s guidance for how The United Methodist Church might move forward after a tumultuous time.

Council of Bishops presidents serve two-year terms at the helm. Malone will succeed New York Conference Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who has served as president since spring 2022.

Malone will assume the presidency from Bickerton midway through General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly scheduled to meet April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. As immediate past president, Bickerton will continue to serve on the Council of Bishops executive committee for another two years.

In addition to Malone, the active bishops elected:

  • Bishop Ruben Saenz, who leads the North Texas and Central Texas conferences, as president-designate.
  • Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, who leads the South Carolina Conference, to another term as secretary.
  • Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who leads the West Ohio Conference, as executive secretary. 
  • Retired Bishops Hope Morgan Ward and Rosemarie Wenner as co-ecumenical officers.

Saenz, as Malone’s likely successor, will begin serving on the executive committee as soon as Malone takes office.

Palmer, Ward and Wenner will take office for their four-year terms on Sept. 1. Retired bishops traditionally hold the roles of executive secretary and ecumenical officer. Palmer is scheduled to retire at the end of August.  

The executive secretary serves as the council’s operations officer and works closely with the president. Ecumenical officers help maintain United Methodist relations with other denominations and Christian bodies. Bishops Bruce Ough and Sally Dyck currently hold those offices.

Beyond officer elections

The newly elected leaders will be taking on their new roles as The United Methodist Church looks to move beyond the recent season of church disaffiliations in the U.S. and deal with whatever General Conference decides next year, especially with regards to proposed worldwide regionalization.

The bishops spent much of their weeklong meeting discussing how they can mend fractures within their own body and help revive the wider denomination.

On the afternoon of Nov. 7, the bishops participated in a closed-door mediation process aimed at addressing tensions within their own ranks as well as concerns about how to address racism and sexism both within the church and outside it.

The mediation session, in part, addressed disagreements arising from the long suspension and eventual church trial of California-Nevada Conference Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the denomination’s first Latina bishop. Carcaño is now reinstated after a church trial found her not guilty on all counts.

During the bishops’ open session on Nov. 11, Bickerton read a statement about that mediation session.

“We began a journey on Tuesday afternoon that was but a step, yet a step in the right direction,” Bickerton said. “We have many miles to travel on the road toward greater confession, forgiveness and reconciliation as a Council of Bishops. We lead by example. And we will strengthen who we are as a conciliar body steeped in trust, humility and agape love.”

Bickerton went on to say the bishops seek to embody the scriptural mandate in Ephesians 4:1-6, which in the Message states: “You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.”

Bickerton said the bishops — in collaboration with the United Methodist commissions on Religion and Race and the Status and Role of Women — will work to dismantle systemic barriers and foster justice. 

“The emotions we experienced during our mediated session will fuel our commitment to this work, including a deeper examination of the complaint suspension and trial process,” he said.

Looking to the future

During their November gathering, the bishops also sought to answer the question: “How do we come together as a church around a common vision that takes us where God is leading?”

Zimbabwe’s Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa suggested that the bishops be guided by the fact that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

“The church gets informed by what it did yesterday, so many years ago, what it is doing today, and then the church is informed about what it is doing tomorrow,” Nhiwatiwa said.

“So the vision of the church really is not like other visions where people only think of tomorrow. You think of what worked best when John Wesley started this movement, what is working best in the present and what is likely to work best in the future.”

Florida Conference Bishop Tom Berlin said that the bishops cannot overestimate the amount of trauma United Methodist churches around the globe have experienced in recent years resulting from the pandemic, global issues and the denomination’s internal strife.

“I believe we have to call the church to pursue the Great Commission and the Great Commandment,” Berlin said.

However, he added, that the tone the bishops take matters.

“The church is not in need of another missive that basically communicates what they’ve been doing wrong,” he said. “It’s in need of a deep love letter that tells clergy and laity, we believe in you and we believe that if you open your lives to the Holy Spirit, God can do remarkable things for you.”

Berlin said he also thinks it would be helpful if the denomination had a broad calling as the bishops have initiated before such as when they called the church to aid children in poverty.

Such a shared goal may already be in development.

During the meeting, Illinois Great Rivers Bishop Frank J. Beard gave a brief update on work he and a task force are starting on how United Methodists might make clean-water access a shared goal.

He observed that the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and conferences already have various projects aimed at providing clean water. Beard said the group plans to survey the bishops to find out what’s already happening and what are the needs with regards to clean water.

“There is a great need, a water shortage, and it’s affecting everything from children in poverty to people’s health,” Beard said. “I can’t think of any area where it isn’t impacting. That’s why it’s important for us.”

Malone reminded the bishops of the words of Isaiah 43:19 in which the prophet declares that God is making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

“God always, always has a plan and a purpose, and God is always doing something new,” Malone said. “And I firmly believe that God has a plan and a dream of the future of this Council of Bishops, and God has a plan and a dream for our beloved United Methodist Church.”